Everything is Connected to Everything Else

The announcement on 6th March 2022 of a meeting between the Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue and farming groups to take place on Tuesday 8th March to discuss food and animal feed security in the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine carries reminders of measures taken to feed the population of Éire during The Emergency, as World War II was known in southern Ireland during the years 1939-1945.

As such the Minister’s call has created a stir, adding foreboding to the general stress people are experiencing to see the war in Ukraine with its destruction and exodus of three million Ukrainians. President Vladimir Putin’s plan to achieve his objectives with minimal Ukrainian resistance and tokenistic responses from the western countries has not succeeded, and there may be a prolonged military conflict and a lengthy period of heightened international tensions. For everyone’s sake, let us hope this is not the case.

The implications for food production are rightly of concern to the Minister for Agriculture. Ukraine and southern Russia are the great wheat-growing areas in Europe. Without this wheat, we have shortages. Wheat is used for many foods, such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and as fillers in a range of foods. Wheat is used by industry to produce starch, paste, malt, dextrose, gluten, alcohol, vinegar and other products.

The financial sanctions applied against Russia may affect Russian wheat production by impacting commodities markets, with supply implications for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Food shortages in the latter two regions are likely to spark hunger, mass migration and political instability.

Because over 20% of the fertiliser used in Ireland comes from Russia, we are likely to see fertilisers rise in price. This will create the dual impacts of having to grow more wheat with increased applications of more expensive fertiliser. The connectedness of international trade means that events like the Russian attack on Ukraine and the international responses to the war will reverberate around the globe.

It is hard to see how wheat production in Ireland can be increased sufficiently, or that wheat quality can be raised. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), 393,000 tonnes of wheat was produced in 2020, down 38% on 2019. The area sown decreased by 16,500 hectares (-26%) and the yield decreased by 16.5%. Ireland is heavily reliant on imported grain. According to the data site knoema.com, Ireland imported 2.12 million tonnes of cereals in 2020.

Many farmers lack the equipment and experience to grow cereals, and wet soils do not favour cereal crops, especially wheat. Fertilisers, already expensive will be more expensive with shortages and rising oil and gas prices, and all this while we are trying to reduce fertiliser inputs to reduce atmospheric, soil and water pollution associated with fertiliser use. Certain concentrations of fertiliser are toxic to insects, including butterflies.

In short, this war is a human nightmare and may become an environmental disaster.  It exemplifies the oft-quoted maxim, “Everything is connected to everything else.” Our response to the challenges posed by this conflict may mitigate some negative effects, and we suggest one way to minimise the impact on Ireland’s environment.

As a conservation organisation, we want the best outcomes for our environment and all living things. One simple step to mitigate the impact of any increase in land used for grain crops and any increase in the area where fertiliser is applied is to retain native hedgerows and maintain an extended field margin unplanted with crops and untreated with chemicals, adjoining hedgerows. These areas are vital for several animal groups and contain vital plant habitats.

Hedges are especially important for butterflies and moths. 65% of Irish butterflies use hedges. Some use hedgerow trees as breeding plants, some use grasses and flowers growing on the warm margins for breeding. In addition, many adult butterflies use hedges as territory, mating stations, nectar sources, flight paths, dispersal routes and hibernation sites. The Brimstone butterfly uses hedgerows for all these reasons, while the Brown Hairstreak uses hedges for breeding, meeting and mating, feeding and as a flight path.

The Brown Hairstreak relies on hedgerows and adjoining biodiverse grassland. Photo J. Harding

A study by Merckx et al. (2012) found the hedgerow trees and extended width margins locally increased the number of larger moth species (also known as macro-moths) but not abundance. Interestingly, they found that species richness and abundance was not affected by intensive farming, measured by the amount of arable land in the landscape. Both mobile and less mobile larger moths did better when extended width margins and hedgerow trees were present. The benefits of trees in the hedgerow were especially strong for tree-feeding species. Increasing the density of hedgerow trees was recommended to lessen the effects of agricultural intensification. The study underlined the value of hedgerow trees, claiming “a disproportionate effect on ecosystem functioning given the small area occupied by any individual tree”.

The study also found a link between increased macro moth populations and ecosystem functioning (in other words, the higher moth abundance and species richness improve biological community functioning). Why is this? Moths are associated with higher pollinator success, which benefits crops and animals, and moths are an important prey base for a range of species.

A study by Coulthard et al. (2016) showed that hedges are very important flight paths for moths. 68% of moths in the study were observed at 1m from the hedge and of these 69% were moving parallel to the hedge. Hedges are believed to provide the sheltered corridors needed by flying insects in our generally open, farmed landscapes.

These studies highlight how crucial hedgerows and hedgerow trees are for butterflies, moths and biodiversity generally. It is crucial that hedges are protected and correctly managed. A badly managed hedgerow can be disastrous for some of our rarer species. For example, many species that breed on hedges lay eggs on the newest growth. Unfortunately, it is this outer part of the hedge that is removed by cutting. The Brown Hairstreak butterfly is extremely vulnerable for this reason, and Berwearts and Merckx (2010) report studies that found that annual mechanical cutting of hedges removes 80-99% of Brown Hairstreak eggs. A rotational cutting system that involves cutting one-third of the hedgerows in an area each winter resulted in the butterfly’s longer-term survival.

Our native hedges are crucial to our landscapes, giving our countryside character, building a sense of place, and hosting much biodiversity. The poet William Wordsworth described the hedgerows as “Little lines of sportive wood run wild.” Our hedgerows need to be valued, respected and maintained if the biodiversity remaining on farmland is to be preserved.

With their bird song, butterflies and flowers, hedges evoke a joyful atmosphere, and the peace we can all do with.

Hedgerows consisting of native trees, shrubs and herbs are a vital landscape feature and crucial for biodiversity in modern farmed landscapes. Photo J. Harding


Central Statistics Office 2020, Area, Yield and Production of Crops, Central Statistics Office,  Accessed 06/03/2021, https://www.cso.ie/en/statistics/agriculture/areayieldandproductionofcrops/

Coulthard, E., McCollin, D. & Littlemore, J. 2016, “The use of hedgerows as flight paths by moths in intensive farmland landscapes”, Journal of insect conservation, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 345-350.

Cross, J. (2012) Ireland’s Woodland Heritage A Guide to Ireland’s Native Woodlands National Parks and Wildlife Service, Dublin.

knoema.com 2020, Ireland – Wheat imports quantity, Accessed 06/03/2021, https://knoema.com/atlas/Ireland/topics/Agriculture/Trade-Import-Quantity/Wheat-imports-quantity#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20wheat%20imports%20quantity,255%2C103%20thousand%20tonnes%20in%202020.

Mag Raollaigh, J., Minister to discuss food security with farming groups in light of Ukraine conflict https://www.rte.ie/news/politics/2022/0305/1284650-mcconalogue-ukraine-farming/ Accessed 06/03/2021

Lysaght, L., Marnell, F., National Biodiversity Data Centre (Ireland) & Global Biodiversity Information Facility 2016, Atlas of mammals in Ireland, 2010-2015, National Biodiversity Data Centre, Carriganore, Waterford;Place of publication not identified;.

MERCKX, T. & BERWAERTS, K. 2010, “What type of hedgerows do Brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae L.) butterflies prefer? Implications for European agricultural landscape conservation”, Insect conservation and diversity, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 194-204.

Merckx, T., Marini, L., Feber, R.E., Macdonald, D.W., Kleijn, D. & Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet 2012, “Hedgerow trees and extended-width field margins enhance macro-moth diversity: implications for management”, The Journal of applied ecology, vol. 49, no. 6, pp. 1396-1404.

Sullivan, M.J.P., Pearce‐Higgins, J.W., Newson, S.E., Scholefield, P., Brereton, T., Oliver, T.H. & McKenzie, A. 2017, “A national‐scale model of linear features improves predictions of farmland biodiversity”, The Journal of applied ecology, vol. 54, no. 6, pp. 1776-1784.

This article was edited on March 20th 2022 to update the refugee figure which stood at 3 million on March 20th.